PRINT October 2004


Destroy All Monsters

Motown, the Detroit-based musical empire built by Berry Gordy in imitation of the local auto works that had once employed him, was a brazen purveyor of (to borrow Theodor Adorno’s dismissive epithet) “commodity music,” pure pop product built from standardized parts, as on an assembly line. This was in the early ’60s, when youth culture as we know it achieved critical mass. Some twenty years later, the midwestern boomtown had given way to the post-Fordist wasteland, where Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, the so-called Belleville Three (after the upscale Detroit suburb they called home), would distill the formula for techno from a dystopic vision of industrialism. As Atkins famously—if perhaps apocryphally—quipped, “Today the automobile plants use robots and computers to make their cars. I’m more interested in Ford’s robots than Gordy’s music.”

The sonic menu of Destroy All Monsters, another very local, very Detroit phenomenon, may not prominently feature either Gordy’s soul music or Atkins’s electronica, but those two pioneers nevertheless provide the group’s development with a telling pair of historical bookends. Ignored in their own day, and some would say for good reason, DAM were, in their own words, an “anti-band.” Apart from the occasional release on flexi-disc or homemade tape, they spent their most fertile period without a label, a manager, or any kind of distribution system. Their few public performances tended to end early, when the plug got angrily pulled, and their only press was self-generated. Conditions that most would find simply impossible were here embraced, however; they stoked DAM’s nihilistic flame, enabling them to produce a body of work so utterly indifferent to prevailing standards of musical taste, so uncompromisingly underground, that it would have to wait twenty years to surface.

The members of DAM met in the art department of the University of Michigan in 1972, right in between the best and the worst of times, between the era of full-benefit packages and the advent of Reaganomic downsizing. The original lineup comprised Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Carey Loren, and Niagara, their protopunk front woman. Card-carrying malcontents, they were bound by a predilection for, culturally speaking, the highest highs and lowest lows, and near-total indifference to everything in between. The sound they synthesized from this radically polarized mix of reference points—which ranged from musique concrète to garage rock, auteur cinema to schlock horror (their name comes from a late-’60s Japanese B movie) and porn, Dadaist poetry to underground comix—is as “difficult” as one might expect yet also oddly consistent, at times almost tranquil. Largely unconcerned with dramatic development or logical progression, DAM abandon the listener in a soundscape or, better, a sound rut. Vibrant tone colors merge into a uniform brown sludge suggestive of rust, crap, failure. Like the squeaky wheel haunting Muzak’s stimulus-progression curve, this is the sound of an economy in decline.

Easy listening, exotica, theremin-based sound tracks, sketch comedy, hi-fi experimentalism, roots rock—at a time dominated by either folk-hippie naturalism or the arty pretensions of prog rock, DAM chose to bend an ear toward the sounds preserved in bargain bins. This matched up perfectly with the band’s downscale gear—K-Mart guitars, chintzy chord organs, broken-down drum machines, and the like. To bring the already Surreal promises of the ’50s into woeful alignment with the present-day evidence of their bankruptcy was DAM’s unspoken aim. To this end, they gathered in one another’s bedrooms and basements, sometimes playing along to records or to films on TV (preferably Tokyo studio fare). Their output swerves recklessly between the sublime and the ridiculous: Play the epically haunted track “Shiver” (1975) back-to-back with the grotesque “Barnyard” (1975), which features crude emulations of a menagerie of farm animals suffering from chronic flatulence. By 1976, this chapter in the life of DAM is already complete.

“A one-to-one relationship is set up, whereby each action is answered by a growling response, like that produced by poking an animal with a stick, or crossing a threshold and setting off an alarm.” Thus Mike Kelley described the DAM production process (to call it composition would be a misnomer) in the first issue of the band’s fanzine. “Once in motion,” he continued, “this response can go on regardless of the actions of the initiator. To produce something, like a sound, and then have it mature enough to keep going without your assistance causes a pleasant sensation—one of creation.” Kelley gives the idea of music as a self-perpetuating machine a very particular spin, one that combines the Exquisite Corpse modus of Surrealism with an alienated post-industrial consciousness, finished off with a suggestion of liberating delinquency. Farther on, he half-ironically announces the band’s egalitarian mission: “Destroy All Monsters is a call for a new therapeutic popular music. . . . Everyone should pump out Monstrous, destructive Destroy All Monsters black noise. If everyone let their aggressions voice themselves in such sound there 1) wouldn’t be any need for popular entertainment of any kind, and 2) wouldn’t be anything—just an existence of total comfort.”1

It is worth noting that Kelley’s father ran the janitorial services in the local school system, while his mother worked as a cook at the Ford Motor Company executive cafeteria in Dearborn, Michigan. These two milieus—school and factory—are never quite transcended by the prodigal son, who clings to their memory as an abysmal doxa, a potent counterincentive to his “existence of total comfort.” Though it was not to be flaunted as a sign of rock ’n’ roll authenticity, this working-class background (which the band members basically shared) gives even their most outré pronouncements a material rather than purely ideological basis. Even the fact that, from the outset, they were so eager to hitch their wagon to the “greater” cause of art takes on an aspirational urgency within this social context that is fundamentally alien to more privileged classes. At the same time, however, DAM’s idea of what art was or could be would conflict violently with then-dominant institutional models. Kelley’s and Shaw’s subsequent struggles with the faculties at their chosen art schools bear this out: The DAM template, which neither of the artists could ever quite let go, was just too open, too inclusive, at a moment when one was required to take sides between an established modernist paradigm and the encroaching poststructuralist/ deconstructionist model. Both Kelley and Shaw ultimately refused to sacrifice even one of their low-pop enthusiasms on the altar of “high culture,” choosing instead to maintain them as a willfully abject framework through which to parody and caricature more accepted modes.

If Kelley and Shaw went on to become key reference points for a generation of post-Pop practitioners, it is basically because they were among the first to stand the process of artistic indoctrination on its head. Like just about every kid in art school these days, they came to the institution fully formed, having absorbed a whole history of art, in Benjaminian terms, “distractedly”—that is, via popular culture. For Kelley, the fractured scheme of psychedelic music was his first cue, synching up as it did with his likewise fractured worldview. The genre was also his individual point of access to a like-minded—underground and experimental—world. As he writes in his essay “Cross-Gender/Cross-Genre” (1999), “Of course, as every educated person knows, this was all old hat in relation to modernism—the avant-gardes at the beginning of the century: cubism, futurism, dada, and surrealism. But I was encountering a phenomenon of mass culture, not high art. One of the most interesting things about the late ’60s is that the historical avant-gardes were picked up and inserted into popular culture under the guise of radical youth culture.” The well-traveled trajectory that leads from the consumption of pop music to its production describes a complete cycle of influence. Thereafter, school becomes either redundant or a battlefield on which two apparently conflicting accounts of what matters in art are pitted against each other. However, the pop-savvy art student may occasionally also gain some insight into just how relative these questions are: What matters there may not matter here. And what was once perceived as original, or at least novel, quickly becomes “old hat” when measured against its historical source.

DAM’s trajectory from obscurity to semi-fame to grudging acceptance from an elite micropublic of New Music and art-rock aficionados could serve as a cautionary fable. For all its nihilistic bravado, DAM is, when all’s said and done, a relatively conventional proposition. As Loren argues in his 1995 “Manifesto of Ignorance,” “Destroy All Monsters began as an anti-rock band. Our menagerie of words, images and sounds were an attempt to thumb our noses at the circus of rock-star bullshit and musical emptiness that filled the air-waves during the early to mid-1970’s.” If this rhetoric now sounds familiar, it is not only because it bespeaks a pop appropriation of avant-garde attitudes but because we have heard the same sentiments expressed by the first wave of punk in the mid- to late ’70s, and then repeated by the grunge-rock generation in the ’90s. As a matter of fact, it is largely thanks to Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, a band that managed to span those musical moments with great critical success and little loss of credibility, that DAM’s early out- put would ever find its way into the commercial sphere. Released on Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! imprint in 1994, the three-CD collection Destroy All Monsters, 1974–1976 is an archival grab bag comprising some 210 minutes of free-form experimentalism mastered from, as Moore recalls in the April 1995 issue of Orbit, “a shoebox full of old Woolworth quality cassettes.” But it is also a work of historical revisionism, an urgent attempt to set the record straight.

When Moore’s art-schooled wife and bandmate Kim Gordon introduced him to Mike Kelley, the two quickly bonded over their mutual infatuation with “bad-hippie” marginalia, particularly as it applied to the Detroit/Ann Arbor–area music scene. No doubt, Kelley provided Moore with an inside line to a crucial cosmology, the patron saints of what has come to be known as indie rock—Sun Ra, Iggy & the Stooges, the MC5, and, among others (ahem), Destroy All Monsters. Spotting the latter as “the band that made 7" singles which kids like me bought and loved,” Moore was surprised to discover that those records had merely been the farcical return of the original pop tragedians that were DAM.

After Kelley and Shaw left Detroit in 1976 to pursue their art careers in California, they were replaced by a pair of authentic “rock gods,” Ron Asheton of the Stooges and Michael Davis of the MC5, and that’s when the real trouble started. As Loren puts it, “We had given up abstraction for power. . . . It was a bid for fame and fortune. . . . Soon, DAM totally lost its direction, and became a raging fiery entity of out-of-control energies and egos.” Asheton, somewhat of a rock casualty, took up the throne beside Niagara and ultimately sent Loren packing. The deposed front man spent a good part of the ’80s—DAM’s ostensible high-water mark, pop- wise, but also its aesthetic nadir—in and out of psychiatric institutions.

Thanks partly to the modest success of the CD box set, the original lineup of DAM has recently re-formed, performing sporadically here and there, and releasing their output, both old and new, on Kelley’s Compound Annex label. No longer just irritating antirock pranksters, these are now éminences grises of lo-fi noise. The process of “belated fulfillment,” as Adorno imagines it, is accomplished by the next generation, but sometimes it has the additional effect of reaching back and catching the original instigators in its momentum. The mixture of acid rock, free jazz, and sampladelia that is at the crux of the “postrock” sound, or whatever comes next, clearly got its start here, and for so many recent bands—Merzbow, Boredoms, Clouddead, Liars, even Radiohead—DAM are the real deal. “DAM, now, is pop music,” claims Kelley, but this is precisely “because the frame of reference that it originally functioned in is gone. That these particular sorts of sound-tropes were once linked to an avant-garde is something that nobody recognizes anymore.”2 But just in case their fit into the current landscape of pop cool becomes too cozy, Kelley recently seized the opportunity to reformulate his band’s mission statement: “The end of the subculture was the beginning of ideology in a critical sense. That means once the dream stopped as a practice, it started as a philosophy. And Destroy All Monsters is a philosophical band. . . . We are not a real band, we can’t play music, we have no audience. But we know what a band looks like. We know how to package ourselves as a band. . . . It wasn’t ironic or parodistic. It was analytical.”3

The Destroy All Monsters Collective that submitted its rock ephemera and apocrypha to an art-world makeover for the 2002 Whitney Biennial was just such a band, their visual sophistication balancing out their sonic naïveté. Whether this constituted an authentic turn in their evolution or a belated follow-through is hard to tell. DAM were always a visually oriented act; they played with their image as much as with their music, if only because no one else would. As opposed to the Poetics, Mike Kelley’s collaborative project with Tony Oursler, which was a manufactured concept-act from the get-go, however, DAM’s self-analysis and conceptualization always occur after the fact, in a sense posthumously. Even so, it is hard to say where exactly their philosophy is going, now as much as then, and this is no doubt the point.

Jan Tumlir is a critic based in Los Angeles.


1. Mike Kelley, “What Destroy All Monsters Means to Me,” Destroy All Monsters Magazine 1 (1976), reprinted in Destroy All Monsters: Geisha This, published in conjunction with the exhibition “Destroy All Monsters,” Book Beat Gallery, Oak Park, MI, 1995.

2. Kelley in discussion with the author, Aug. 6, 2004.

3. Kelley, quoted in Vincent Pecoil, “I Rip You, You Rip Me . . . ,” Documents sur l’art 3 (1998): 110.